Rural broadband in the U.S. still sucks. However, Verizon and Amazon announced today that they’ll be collaborating to expand the carrier’s rural 5G and 4G LTE networks via Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the company’s version of SpaceX’s Starlink. It’s a move that, if successful, could challenge Elon Musk’s satellite internet system—so long as Amazon gets around to launching a couple of thousand low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
Named after a ring of icy objects beyond Neptune, Project Kuiper aims to launch a “constellation” of 3,236 satellites into low orbit to improve internet access in underserved areas. The Amazon-Verizon partnership will mash together Kuiper satellites with Verizon’s wireless tech and infrastructure to deliver better broadband coverage and “new customer-focused connectivity solutions,” whatever that means.
The benefit for Verizon, as noted by the Verge, is that the carrier gets to beef up its 4G and 5G offerings without the hassle of building out traditional infrastructure like fiber cables. While Verizon was the first to switch on its 5G network, it’s currently trailing behind T-Mobile in terms of coverage. Part of that is because its strategy was to focus on mmWave, which offers blazing speeds but not-so-great range. Meanwhile, T-Mobile opted to snap up mid-band spectrum. The other issue with focusing on mmWave is that it’s expensive to expand, because it requires more nodes to compensate for the weaker range.
But Amazon has to actually launch some satellites. It hasn’t put a single one in orbit just yet, though the FCC did give a thumbs up to Amazon launching its roughly 3,200 satellites with the stipulation that half must be in orbit by 2026. The company says that broadband access will be available once 578 satellites are in orbit. The remainder must be in place by 2029. Amazon has also stated it plans to invest $10 billion in Project Kuiper, and earlier this year signed a contract with United Launch Alliance for nine launches. It also poached a number of members from Facebook’s now-defunct satellite team.
Right now, Starlink leads the way in satellite broadband. It has roughly 1,800 satellites launched to date and has shipped 100,000 terminals in 14 countries. The service itself costs $499 for a starter kit, with a $99 monthly fee. While initial speeds were hit-or-miss, Ookla found in August that Starlink’s speeds are approaching that of broadband. Aside from Project Kuiper and Starlink, there’s also OneWeb. It’s launched 358 of a planned 648 LEO satellites and aims to provide global service by 2022.